[SPARTAN VALUES ’
12 The List 9— 15 August I991
an all out war. And in all out war any means are justified. For Finlay, operating in the aesthetic field, this means language and imagery, usually an amalgam ofthe two. From the point of view ofgeneral public comprehensibility this is unfortunate. In our approach to works of art we have become so casual and ungenerous with our imaginations that anything which depends for its impact on precision and logic is bound to rebuff and short-circuit our limited capacity for sympathy. Nevertheless, Finlay has persisted. And his reward has been an international status beyond that of virtually any other Scottish artist. On the continent and in the United States Finlay is regarded as the pre-eminent concrete poet of his generation; an artist without an example of whose work any great contemporary art museum is incomplete.
It may come as a surprise to some that the Finlay exhibition staged this Festival by the Graeme Murray Gallery at the Fruitmarket is the first major retrospective in his home country. But those will be the ones who have no memory ofthe acrimonious relations between Finlay and the Scottish Arts Council which resulted from the artist’s closure (minutes before the Private view) of the exhibition the SAC attempted to stage in 1978 at its old gallery in Charlotte Square. Finlay maintained — in true conceptualist spirit — that the non-exhibition was a more meaningful statement than the real thing would have been. In view ofthe once hated organisation‘s role in the closure ofthe Fruitmarket Gallery earlier this year (Finlay once produced badges reading SAC/ACGB/KGB) it is surprising perhaps that Finlay agreed to the Fruitmarket as a venue. One can hope that a repeat ofthe 1978 debacle does not occur.
Provided it does not, then the Festival public will be treated to the artist‘s entire graphic oeuvre with the addition of rarely seen neon pieces. Finlay set up the Wild Hawthorn Press in 1958 to publish work by a variety of poets but it soon became the major vehicle for his own relentless artistic propaganda. Its output has included postcards, poem/prints, magazines. booklets of all shapes and sizes and even jam-pot covers; all impeccably calligraphed and designed in a style which invariably functions to project and emphasise the meaning ofthe text. According to the organisers, the range and extent of the Wild Hawthorn Press‘s activities are guaranteed to astound.
To appreciate the work. however. the uninitiated will require a certain amount of background research into Finlay‘s themes. Recently these have tended to be overtly political. Finlay is keen on the philosophers
and leaders ofthe French Revolution, for 1
example. and the way in which their moral dicta are informed by aesthetic concerns. The symbols and insignia of Nazi Germany are a further source of fascination. But ' whatever slogan or motif Finlay borrows as the substance of a work — whether it be a quotation from Robespierre or the Waffen SS flash — his interest should never be taken on face value. (The French intelligentsia did just this with the result that Paris was denied what looked likely to be its most artistically valid bicentennial monument — Finlay‘s ‘ scheme fora garden at Versailles.) Finlay is usually making some acute and damning comment on contemporary cultural mores with his characteristic mixture of wit and sarcasm.
In the late 80s when Strathclyde Region attempted to levy a rate on the building
Finlay had designated a Garden Temple. the 7
artist organised a mock war spearheaded by a group of his supporters calling themselves
the Saint Just Vigilantes. The episode had its
ludicrous aspects and these were avidly seized upon by the press. But what most people failed to grasp was that underneath the punning rhetoric this was a straighforward case of the artist versus unbending state bureaucracy. After the ‘Little Spartan War‘ Finlay rechristened his house Little Sparta. And it is to Little Sparta that those who care about real values should go to feel the full impact of Finlay‘s crusade: for me the graphic work featured exclusively in this exhibiton is only halfthe story. Fortunately, excursions are being organised in conjunction with it.
Ian Hamilton Finlay and The Wild
Hawthorn Press is at the Fruimzarket Gallery
from 10 Aug until 14 Sept.
The Poor Fisherman, an exhibition conceived by Finlay andfeaturing much of his work, is at the Talbot Rice Gallery/rum IOAug until 7Sept.
‘the symbols and insignia of Nazi Germany are a fascination' — one of Hamilton Finlay’s three Banners.